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Monday, September 27, 2021

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News + PoliticsThe agenda, Feb. 8-14: Lee's strange transit policy ...

The agenda, Feb. 8-14: Lee’s strange transit policy …

... plus Google buses redux, the problem with giving Rec-Park more money ... and the Worst Super Bowl Ever

Here’s a strange one that’s mostly under the radar: Mayor Ed Lee has introduced a ballot measure that would direct all future increases in revenue for Muni into capital projects, not ongoing operations.

How are we supposed to run the buses without any drivers?
How are we supposed to run the buses without any drivers?

I don’t get it: You can’t run buses without bus drivers. Investing in new rolling stock, rails, and train cars is lovely, but not if nobody’s around to run them.

But that, as I read it, is what this measure says. Check it out for yourself:

It shall be the official policy of the City and County of San Francisco that proceeds from any revenue measure passed by the voters between 2016 and the year 2030 that the City decides to spend on transportation should be directed towards San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency infrastructure and vehicles, road repaving and pothole repair through San Francisco Public Works, “Vision Zero” safety projects and other bicycle and pedestrian safety infrastructure projects, and investment in regional transportation infrastructure improvements and vehicles that serve San Franciscans such as BART and Caltrain and/or a second Transbay train tunnel, and that such proceeds shall not be directed to general administrative and personnel costs other than what is necessary to implement the aforementioned capital projects.

Interesting to see what the unions representing Muni works have to say about that.

The measure comes before the Rules Committee Thursday/11 at 11am.


Meanwhile, Sup. John Avalos is trying to raise, by just a little bit, the insanely low fee that developers have to pay for the transit impacts of their projects. He’s trying to get a few more bucks to make growth pay for growth; his increase would only impact buildings with more than 99,999 square feet. But in the past, it’s been almost impossible to get the mayor and six supes to charge anywhere near what the city has the right to collect. That one comes up at Land Use Monday/8 at 1:30pm.

Avalos also has a bill at Rules that would require a conditional use hearing before any residential unit is removed. That includes illegal units. And it might make it harder for landlords to do this.


The biggest issue of the week will be the appeal of the Google Bus Program, which the city approved without an environmental impact report. This was supposed to come up a couple of weeks ago, but it got continued; the reality is that I don’t think it had six votes. The appeal will come up Tuesday/9 after 3pm, and the appellants will argue that the project does, indeed, have an impact on the city. It drives people who live in the Mission out of town by forcing up housing prices; they move to Stockton or Vallejo, and commute to work (by car, since there’s no alternative). That’s a potentially significant environmental impact by itself. And a full EIR on this program would shed some light on the long-term impacts of providing free luxury shuttles to make it easier for Silicon Valley to outsource its housing problems to San Francisco.

Sup. Aaron Peskin, who might be the sixth vote to require a full EIR, said two weeks ago that he didn’t think the tech shuttles were going away. Maybe there’s a way to force the companies that benefit from this to pay for more affordable housing. Maybe there’s a way to make sure they aren’t interfering with Muni.

But in the end, there’s a dispute here: Do the shuttle buses cause displacement and environmental impacts? An EIR would give us some answers.


And then there’s this: Seven supes want to set aside a baseline appropriation for recreation and parks. Sounds like the perfect idea that everyone can get behind: Is there a soul in this city who doesn’t like parks?

It’s going on the ballot, I would guess, since there are seven co-sponsors and six votes puts it before the people of San Francisco.

It’s on the Board agenda for Tuesday/9, and I don’t want to be a killjoy or anything, but there are actually reasons to think seriously about this.

Set-asides are tricky, and there are a lot of them. The idea of putting language in the City Charter saying that a certain amount of General Fund money every year has to go to one specific program means the supes and the mayor have less discretion to do what a budget is supposed to do – set priorities.

I have supported some of these, particularly the Children’s Fund, in large part because children can’t vote and there are fewer and fewer parents and families in town and that’s an easy area for politicians to cut.

But at a certain point you start to say: Should all of our budgeting be done through Charter amendments that can’t be changed, based on programs that happen to be popular? How about a set-aside for mental health, or homeless services? Since the biggest single problem in the city right now is housing, should we set aside ten fpercent of the budget to provide affordable housing? That would actually make a huge dent in the problem, and it would mean less money for police, and fire, and public health, and lots of other things – but if we spent, say, half a billion more a year on nothing but affordable housing, and that money was guaranteed for the indefinite future, we could borrow against it and build tens of thousands of new units pretty quickly.

We might even save money in the long run, since an awful lot of police and public health and public works and other department budgets go to addressing, after the fact, the problems created by a city that can’t solve homelessness.

Would that be a better way to spend money than on parks?

Maybe … and isn’t that what the mayor and the supervisors are supposed to debate and figure out?

Okay, that doesn’t always work. Bad decisions are made. But the voters also make bad decisions on set-asides, that we then have to live with for a long time. Recreation and parks are crucial parts of the city; so are supportive housing and mental-health treatment. It’s easier to get a majority vote for parks, particularly since the Lee Administration can’t seem to keep track of where the current homeless money is going. Just saying.

But there’s another issue here: The current management of the Recreation and Parks Department has been, well, awful. Director Phil Ginsburg is all about privatization, about finding ways to make the parks revenue-generators. He’s been leasing out rec centers, allowing corporate events to take over Coit Tower, giving private donors the right to decide that recycled tires are good for kids’ playing fields …. And at some point, maybe we might want to say: Enough.

Maybe we might want to decide not to give more guaranteed money to a management model that we don’t like.

I personally opposed the 2012 parks bond, for all of these reasons. Back then, I was the editor of the Bay Guardian, but I wasn’t a dictator –we had a process, and nobody else on the Editorial Board agreed with me (nor did our new owner, with whom I parted company shortly afterward).

As I wrote at the time:

For the past few years, under the administrations of Mayors Gavin Newsom and Ed Lee and the trusteeship of Rec-Park Directors Jared Blumenfeld and Phil Ginsburg, the city has gone 100 percent the wrong way. Parks are supposed to be public resources, open to all; instead, the department has begun charging fees for what used to be free, has been turning public facilities over to private interests (at times kicking the public out), and has generally looked at the commons as a source of revenue. It’s a horrible precedent. It makes us sick.

Ginsburg told us that he’s had no choice — deep budget cuts have forced him to look for money wherever he can find it, even if that means privatizing the parks. But Ginsburg also admitted to us that, even as chief of staff under Newsom, he never once came forward to push for higher taxes on the wealthy, never once suggested that progressive revenue sources might be an option. Nor did any of the hacks on the Rec-Park Commission. Instead, they’ve been busy spending tens of thousands of dollars on an insane legal battle to evict the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council’s recycling center — entirely because rich people in the Haight don’t want poor people coming through their elite neighborhood to cash in bottles and cans for a little money.

I went with the process and we endorsed Yes on the bond, which passed, but I also said: I’m not sure I can ever stomach this again.

So now Rec-Park has its hand out for a guaranteed source of money. I may be in the minority, an old curmudgeon and all that, but I am highly dubious. (And that comes from a San Franciscan who is an active user of parks, and a parent who has taken advantage of the excellent programs that Rec-Park offers for kids.) I suspect that some of the board members (like Sup. Aaron Peskin) are going to agree with me. This won’t be a unanimous vote.

Maybe the measure could be amended to say: No more privatization. Let the recycling center come back. No more kicking Latino kids out so corporate parties can use the soccer fields. No more letting Don Fisher’s kids set playing-field policy. Change your tune entirely, Mr. Ginsburg, and we will give you more money.

Good luck with that.


Sometimes I feel as if the reporters in this city are living in different worlds. The Chron says there really aren’t any homeless sweeps, so no worries. The Examiner talked to a woman who lost her job after … a sweep. That’s why it’s good to have an opposition daily (or two).


And now, in closing, for the permanent record, can I say: San Francisco spent more than $5 million to host the worst Super Bowl in history. Go team.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.
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  1. I completely agree in re: charter amendments for budget set asides. Why doesn’t Sup Farrell just try to increase the budget for P&R for next year, and then the year after.

    Before you hate on the SB too much, remember how many people here rely on tourism as their source of employment. SB isn’t for me, but market st was packed Thursday-Sunday.

  2. Relax, relax …it isn’t want Tim said it is. As someone else pointed out It isn’t about “all future increases in revenue”.

    It is about “proceeds from any revenue measure passed by the voters”.

    Voters don’t need to approve a budget increase but they do need to approve bonds designed to amortize the cost of improvements over decades.

    In household terms it makes sense to borrow money to buy a car but running up credit card debt to buy gas every week is not a good idea. A grown-up concept.

  3. “Do the shuttle buses cause displacement and environmental impacts? An EIR would give us some answers.”

    An Environmental Impact Review would look at “displacements”?

    I’m not sure what someone losing their rent-controlled apartment has to do with the environment. I do know, however, that keeping density low to protect a block of entrenched voters causes more people to drive in from Manteca, Tracy, and Stockton. Which might effect the environment. Just guessin’ here.

  4. Tim, the Muni measure does not say that ALL future revenue must go to capital not operating expenses. It says that all future revenue from bond measures must go to capital. And that surely makes sense – you borrow long-term to fund long-term investment. You pay annual operating expenses from recurring short-term funds.

    If you are borrowing long-term to pay current bills then you will get deeper and deeper into the hole. And vital investment in infrastructure and expansion will be starved.

    Future increases in revenue that derive from Muni fares and operations will still go to pay operating expenses. Lee is only talking about future bond measures here. We don’t even know if the voters will approve them, so relying on them to keep the light on seems risky.

    The real problem is that Muni fares do not come close to meeting operating expenses. The farebox recovery rate is somewhere around 20% to 25%, meaning that the average Muni journey costs about $10 to operate. That leaves the city in a bind, but paying off loans and interest in 2046 for expenses incurred in 2016 sounds like a one-way trip to the poor-house.

  5. Now who would benefit from Lee’s proposal regarding funding Muni? Let’s see, if there are fewer drivers could it be that sharing economy transit companies could benefit?

    Oh is this driving by some bullshit libertarian/conservative ideology?

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